Friday, May 11, 2012

11. Keeping Track: Continuity and Consistency

The other day, in response to my post on mapping novel locations, a reader sent me a question by email:

When I've tried fiction, the main problem I've had is consistency.  In other words, I would write something on page 98 that was inconsistent with something I had written on page 28.  How do you get around this?  Do you start from the beginning every time you sit down to write more?  Or do you say, who cares?

In another life long ago, when I was one of several writers for a soap opera, there was always someone in charge of “continuity.” This person made sure that when the Miller family sat down to a dinner of roast beef they did not get up three episodes later from a delicious chicken cacciatori. Every novelist needs to be her own continuity expert. 

To answer my reader’s last question first, of course you must care about consistency! One of the surest ways to lose readers is to write a novel with random character or plot changes. Can you imagine a movie in which a character starts out as Nicolas Cage but ends up as John Travolta? (Okay, bad example, since there IS such a movie. Never use Nicolas Cage in an example.) My point is that when you’re dealing with a large cast of characters and a complicated plot, it’s not always easy to remember everything. Here’s what I recommend to my writing students:

  • Make charts and graphs. I do this in addition to the maps I draw of the locations for various scenes. Pandora’s Genes  had three major characters and dozens of lesser characters. It took place in several locations over a period of five years. I pieced together several sheets of paper and made a long timeline that mapped the most important scenes. It showed me where and when everyone was at any given time in the novel.
  • Keep notebooks or index cards—or the electronic equivalent--for each character and plot point. I’m an index-card kind of writer myself, but I know other novelists who keep a small notebook or electronic data-base section for each character and each important plot thread. In Pandora’s Children there is an important subplot about a spy among the Principal’s closest aides. I kept careful notes on the clues I left, to make sure both that they were not too obvious and that I did not forget them later.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes unexpected plot twists will turn up and ruin all your best-laid plans. Or a character will decide to do something you hadn’t foreseen. When this occurs, if the change seems right for the book, then go with it. But always go back and change earlier scenes so that they match up with the new fictional reality. When you do, you’ll find that all those charts and index cards make your job a lot easier.

Tomorrow: Outline or Wing It?

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  1. I'd love to hear more about your index card idea. I know that's common in script writing. but for someone trained in journalism, not so much. Is there a book that explains it well?

    1. That is fascinating. I'd never thought of that part of the process of long-fiction writing. I wonder how someone like Dostoevsky in, say, Brothers Karamazov handled the continuity/timeline details. People were running all over the place! I guess novelists need -- at least mentally -- to pin up a big sign that says "MEANWHILE [back at the ranch]."

  2. One thing that really bugs me is when an author makes a big deal of something, setting up the expectation that it will prove to be significant, but never mentions it again. In some schlock novel I read ages ago, there was an intense discussion about being out of butter. No butter in the fridge, no butter anywhere, THEY WERE OUT OF BUTTER. I read that whole damn book waiting for the lack of butter to be fulfilled as a major plot point. ("You never really loved me! You let us run out of butter when you knew I was going to make toast!")It never came up. Nobody ever cared that back in Chapter 2 they were temporarily out of butter. It was a first-act pistol that was never fired. Annoying.

  3. Belated response. Thanks for your comments. Jackie, I don't really have a system for the index cards; I just use them because they are convenient, and try to color-code them so that like things are on like colors (for example, everything to do with Part 2 of the new novel would be on an orange card--this can be further refined later on). gh, luckily for Dostoevsky, he had an amanuensis in his wife Anna, and he also kept copious notes all over his mss. Kate: I want to know more about that Butter Book!